Staunton, December 20 – The only unexpected thing to come out of Vladimir Putin’s press conference this week was his reference to the possibility of changing the Constitution to eliminate its restriction on anyone serving more than two presidential terms “in a row,” Yekaterinburg commentator Aleksey Shaburov says.
That has sparked debate over what Putin’s proposal represents with some saying it proves he will use this device to remain in power while others argue that it is part and parcel of his plan to leave the scene to others, the Politsovet editor says (politsovet.ru/65035-slovo-pretknoveniya-zachem-putin-predlozhil-ubrat-iz-konstitucii-slovo-podryad.html).
But in large measure, he continues, this debate ignores the fact that “in the present-day Russian situation, it isn’t the Constitution which defines the framework of political reality but rather the reverse. [And] therefore it is not so important how Putin’s decision about the preservation of power (if it has been decided) will be framed.”
“Much more important,” Shaburov says, “is that such a decision will require much greater efforts than simply changing the Constitution, and these efforts may not please many people.” Not only that, he suggests; but they may be greater than the resources of the system to override such displeasure.
Despite the fact that “the question of Putin’s plans for 2024 literally hung in the air” of the press conference, the Kremlin leader did not say anything about the tradition but he did talk, completely unbidden, about changing the Constitution to eliminate the restriction on anyone serving more than two terms as president in a row.
The fact that he made that comment even though he wasn’t asked, Shaburov argues, shows that “Putin really is thinking about this theme.” And not surprisingly, many analysts and commentators have rushed to interpret just what Putin means. There are three basic interpretations.
The first view is that “Putin in fact did not say anything new and that one need not take seriously his words or expect changes in the Constitution.” Those holding this position note that he said much the same thing in 2012 and no changes occurred. But today political conditions are different and that vitiates much of this argument.
The second interpretation of Putin’s words is that he has “decided to leave the post of president in 2024” either by handing things off to Dmitry Medvedev for a time or by leaving the position for good. Few believe the latter, but many do not recognize how difficult organizing the former would be.
Medvedev is extremely unpopular and getting him installed as president while not impossible would entail real risks. “And even if this happened, Medvedev all sick years would be ‘a lame duck,’” something that would weaken Putin as well and require enormous efforts by him to compensate.
And finally, the third view is that Putin’s proposed change in the Constitution will allow him to be re-elected again and again given that the tame Constitutional Court will undoubtedly bless any request from him that his earlier terms not be counted against him if the basic law is modified.
The problem with this view, Shaburov argues, is that it is likely to generate public anger, the size of which is difficult to predict. While those in power think the people will swallow anything the Kremlin does, they are likely wrong at least in this case.
Thus, with his words, Putin didn’t introduce clarity into the 2024 problem but further confused and complicated it because changing the Constitution alone won’t be enough to solve that problem. Much political capital will have to be expended, and how much is currently available remains an open question.